Review: The Aspern Papers, Henry James

Me and Henry James have a quarrel. Our quarrel is that he called Oscar Wilde a fatuous fool and a tenth-rate cad, and when Oscar Wilde’s trials happened, he claimed to feel sorry for him but refused to sign a petition in support of shortening his jail sentence. Number one, those are really lame insults. Number two, it’s painfully obvious from the accounts of their encounters that Henry James was jealous of Oscar Wilde for being smarter and writing more successful plays and getting laid more often. Which is to say, more often than zero times. YEAH I WENT THERE HENRY JAMES.

(I know that was needlessly cruel but I had to. You can’t insult Oscar Wilde and expect me not to take it to a personal place.)

There are, therefore, a couple of possible reasons that I did not care for The Aspern Papers, and among the likeliest is the sense I have had, almost at once thereafter confirmed in Keepers of the Flame (about which more later), that Henry James believed Oscar Wilde was a bit overdone. And this sense has often led me to give Henry James a miss, even though Turn of the Screw sounds like just my kind of thing. I gave in and read The Aspern Papers as a companion to Keepers of the Flame, but I may have had an ulterior motive where I wanted to be able to say: “Eh. I read one of Henry James’s novellas. I didn’t care much about it.”

Soooo…yeah. I read this. I didn’t care that much about it.

The story is that the protagonist, who goes unnamed, takes lodgings with two women, one of whom was a former lover of writer Jeffrey Aspern. The old lady, Juliana Bordereau, has declined to share the massive cache of papers of Aspern’s that she currently holds. The protagonist hopes to ingratiate himself to her or to her niece, a timid spinster called Miss Tita, in order to gain access to the papers, and then presumably to acquire scholarly renown by publishing them and being the premiere Aspern scholar in all the land. And then party at unnamed protagonist’s house. And cocktail parties. And monuments to his Aspern scholar renown or whatever.

The Aspern Papers is an oddly tentative novel. The protagonist’s love of Aspern’s work, which should be the bedrock of the book, amirite, hardly seems real. It motivates everything he does — supposedly — but he doesn’t say much about what makes Aspern so great, or how he came to love him, or what gaps in knowledge he hopes to fill with these papers. Details like this would have given stakes to the way the story ends, or what goes on throughout it.

Oh, yeah, but another complaint I had was that nothing goes on throughout this entire story. For heaven’s sake. I thought the protagonist was going to have a bunch of engaging moral dilemmas, but James hardly dares to let him entertain an immoral thought. He has to be awfully awfully decent about everything. He doesn’t do any schemes to get the papers. The schemiest thing he ever does is to stop sending flowers to the women for a few days. To get their attention. That’s like his number one most schemy scheme. Great scheme, Henry James. I presume Pollyanna was your Chief Scheming Consultant on this book?

Hrmph. And do you know how old Henry James lived to be? He lived to be seventy-two m.f. years old. Seventy-two. If Oscar Wilde had lived to be seventy-two, we’d probably all be talking about how the early promise of The Importance of Being Earnest was truly fulfilled in [insert name of play(s) we’ll never read because Oscar Wilde died┬átragically young while much much lamer authors lived to be seventy-damn-two].